Angel of Distemper
My answer, which I also gave above in response to Peter, is simply that knowledge isn't zero-sum. The point is to be aware of the limits of one's thinking. We don't even need to talk politics to illustrate the point. I'm sure you, like most of us, have done the instructions game at school. It's a very simple experiment. You create instructions for an everyday, humdrum action, like making toast or tying shoelaces. Easy, common sense stuff. Then you give your instructions to the other groups and watch as they follow them step by step as if they'd never done it. In most cases, the instructions will not work, even for the simplest actions. One of the instructions will be slightly off ("Which end goes into the machine, the broken tip of the pencil, or the eraser?") or incomplete ("How can we wash the pots and pans if the kitchen light isn't on?"). It's just a silly game-- nobody takes instructions that literally, as we know-- but the outcome is very interesting. It shows us how much we take for granted with respect to common sense, "common" looking like a misnomer because we don't see things the same as other people. We all know this to be true, but-- and this is the real message of the game-- it's true to a greater extent than we ever imagined. There is always a blind spot in our thinking we never suspected was there.
Which is why I say that "common sense" usually covers up a lot of unexamined premises. All sides are guilty of it, but one side in particular is more guilty than the others, and that's the side of the powerful. By "powerful" I don't just mean the guys with all the money and guns. It applies equally so to the "powerful" in the academy and in the arts, where the Enlightenment's concept of empirical truth is often transformed into a kind of dogma designed to exclude the heretical. Hitchens was an example of this.
To be fair, as anyone who has been to university is painfully aware, the opposite side has won far too many victories over the years. The pendulum has swung from One Truth to Many Truths/Nothing Is True, which is outrageous. Like I said above, "anything goes" is not in any way a rigorous intellectual position. The truth is out there, as "The X-Files" showed us. We just have to pursue it knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are. The worst of the politically correct crowd were nothing more than mirror images of their enemies: "anything is true" is just as deadly as saying "there is only one truth".
That blind spot is a mile wide, and the acknowledgement of said spot is the difference between a strong moral certitude that many people find reassuring and a more "nuanced" view of reality that requires an intellectual diligence that is much more difficult for most people to accept. Authoritarians (whether of the political or religious variety) know that One Truth works in the real world (good riddance, Kim Jong Il). This was the evil from which the enlightenment forces were supposed to deliver us (to be ridiculously reductive). No Truth is a weakness of modernity, and it leads to flaccidity and complete uselessness.
As for Hitch, he was such a fascinating example of how a profoundly insightful, thoughtful, well-educated, disciplined, wide-ranging intellect can still come to some tragically wrong conclusions. Still, he lived and died at full capacity, which is all any of us could wish for.
As for the corruption of the notion of empiricism, that is one of humankind's most profound betrayals.
But that was in the 80s and 90s. Today, I have to question how many of the protesters we see around America and Europe cling to anarchy (whether political, intellectual, or in the street). I often see distinctions between idiots who are nothing more than confused nihilists and outsiders who want to come in from the cold and join the party. Western Civilization got it right, for sure. Many of our governments and other authority structures just aren't living up to our highest standards, and lots of people are calling them on it-- rightly so. And I think the protesters know that what constitutes "political legitimacy" is entirely decided by a handful of elites who want to keep them powerless.
I'm with the Occupiers, all the way. The tragic reality, however, is that the old saw about power corrupting is (almost) universally true; outsiders become elites that then need to be overthrown, and so on ad infinitum. We live in a constant state of flux that manages to move forward and backward at the same time, so that for every battle we win (more egalitarian societies, empowerment of women, acceptance and respect for gender and racial diversity, environmental awareness, etc.) we also lose (fascist/corporatist states, violent religious fundamentalists, multinational exploiters, armed nuclear lunatics). The nihilists do have a compelling case, but it is viciously pointless. Humanity's own betrayal of our most profound capacities is an ongoing tragedy and it is only those glimmers of wise and compassionate action, creative genius, intellectual bravery and common (yes common) decency that offer us any promise of progress. The fact that such glimmers always seem to exist on the periphery is cause for both wonder and dismay.